Sunday, January 30, 2011


It rained all morning in Kimitsu before Omatsuri, the harvest festival, a day that mikoshi, portable shrines, are freed from their musty storage barns and paraded through town on proud shoulders, the gods silently waving hello.
A team of mikoshi carriers persisted throughout the morning, practicing in mud puddled pavement, synching their movements with their chants so together they could lift and shake and toss the mikoshi through the streets and back to the Goryo shrine.
Murmurs of the festival being canceled dissolved into a boiling yellow sky. Remaining bystanders peeled off layers of jackets and sweatshirts, smiling breaths full of grassy air as the mikoshi arrived unceremoniously on the flatbed of a truck. I had seen mikoshi before, always as a clinking gold streak floating through the night on a sea of sweaty drunk men, but never anything like this. This was the most beautiful mikoshi I had ever seen.
It was a shrine, with its millions of intricate and enigmatic details, boiled down to two tons and dipped in gold. A bird curling its wings as it lifted itself through the sky, shone in the sunlight on the apex of the roof, a sprig of unhusked rice in its beak, gently swayed in the breeze. Thick ropes, bold red and purple, like two fat pythons coiled around each other, twisted from under the bird and fell over the four sides of the roof, ending in straight and jaunty tassels like marti gras wigs.
The mikoshi carriers lingered nearby on a street corner in their traditional happi robes, tied low around their hips with a cloth belt, torsos looking long, some happi hung open and bellies stuck out, some happi were army green, some a light blue overlaid with a navy blue design like the bottom of a weaved basket. They all wore the same white cotton shorts hovering above meaty quadriceps, and cloth shoes called tabi, white and mud stained, cleft at the big toe like deer hooves that clung gracefully to the pavement.
They gathered together and lifted the mikoshi off the flatbed, their progress wobbly, precarious, nervous strain flashed from face to face as they rested it onto a heavy wood platform. I tried to spot Kevin, the only foreigner in the group and his outspoken Karate teacher Yukio, but they were swallowed under the mikoshi in the mass of bodies.
With the mikoshi safely in place on its platform, the leader stood in front, set apart by his mustard-colored robe, a crescent of kneeling men curled around him, their eyes on the ground and ears turned up like dishes catching every drop of wisdom from his melodious speech, distinctly Japanese, quick and even, coming to a halt at regular intervals with a barely perceptible nod of the head, speech like precise pounding of keys on a typewriter stopping at each end to pull back the bar.
When he was finished the men clapped their hands tersely in sync. With the final clap they stood up and took their places under the heavy wood support beams that crossed under the shrine. The men chanted loud and strong back and forth and with a great heave they sent the portable shrine afloat on their hands and down onto their shoulders. The golden bird rocked violently, gold curtains spilled from all sides and the gods peeked out from dark corners, saying hello to cars as they waited through green lights for the mikoshi to pass.
A mass of legs like a caterpillar scurried under the shrine, to the start of the festival street lined with booths selling chocobanana, candied apples, cotton candy, whirlpools of super-balls for children to ladle out, and fare cooked on greasy cast iron, takoyaki, obanyaki, yakisoba. They eased the mikshoi onto its wood platform and hung around it, speaking easily to each other in scattered groups, faces shining, course hands smoking stiff cigarettes, sitting on the curb regally with legs spread as they drank cans of warm beer and sakè ladled out of a drum into paper cups.
Yukio brought me some saké, it tasted like a fresh cut lawn, the men use it to purify themselves before carrying the mikoshi, Yukio told me. The mikoshi carriers regrouped and chanted and moaned and shouted, “hoota, hoota!” and lifted the mikoshi back onto their shoulders. They carried the mikoshi up and down the block a few yards, stopping to spin it around, tilt it up and down and making it dance. The crowd took a subdued interest, but it quickly scattered to the food stands and the carriers’ chants faded into the din.
The mikoshi carriers bent under the hot sun and two tons of shrine, no help from the crowd. Apropos nothing, their chanting grew louder, heftier, they pumped the mikoshi up and down becoming more excited with each lift, their eyes gleamed and voices melded into a powerful series of grunts from the heart of the earth, stilling the crowds with the electricity circling through them. With all eyes now on the mikoshi, their voices became a crescendo of bellowing shrieks that sent the mikoshi sailing through the air.
All was calm as the shrine floated for one full second of complete trust and insanity, two tons of metal and god hovering a foot above a hundred outstretched fingertips. Everyone held their breath until the mikoshi landed squarely back into the palms of the carriers, releasing the crowd into an outpour of delighted squeals and cheers.

The sky eventually tired and yawned a heavy blue, blanketing the crowd with a calm indigo light. A procession of tired children and mothers with babies on their hips, pairs of chatting old women, groups of texting teens and staggering drunk men followed the glow of soft paper lanterns leading to the Goryo shrine.
It was dark by the time we reached the shrine. There was already a crowd of people waiting, flutes whistling ancient cadences along with the low rhythmic bellows from teams of taiko players, raising blunt wood sticks high above their heads and pounding them in a rapid, effortless circles of rhythm against the wide face of the drum. The mikoshi carriers, their hair and happi drenched in sweat, did a few more lifts and twirls with the mikoshi before lifting it up wide stone steps and resting it finally in the white gravel courtyard of the shrine.
I entered the shrine grounds for the first time after having passed it nearly everyday for the last few months. Gruesome dragon-like statues gazed out from roof corners, the top of the staircase, the door frame, opened, yellow light spilled out. I peered in at the simple wood paneled interior and tried to wrap my mind around the millions of symbols, the shiny back altar engraved in gold ivy, stacked with piles of oranges, bottles of sho-chu, drums of sake; incense snaking up and vanishing, blooming gold lotuses hovering in the foreground, red candles flickering on heavy ebony stands next to a taiko drum, a minature scene under a smaller shrine within the shrine.
The mikoshi carriers gathered under a tent at tables set up with trays of fried food and beer. Yukio invited me in the tent and it seemed strange, like an honor I hadn’t earned. As the men laughed and ate and drank the leader in the mustard-colored robe stood up and gave a speech, afterward more men stood up and spoke from their tables, the tent roared with laughter from the stories told about the day. The thought crossed my mind that they would want Kevin to make a speech and just as I imagined this, I noticed the mustard-robed man look over to our table in the back.
“What’s he saying?” I asked Yukio.
“You have to say something about the day, tell what you thought.”
Kevin and I shrieked, and all heads turned toward our table, the laughter and noise suddenly drained out of the tent leaving an expectant silence to fill. Kevin stood up and I can’t remember what he said because I was so nervous that I was going to have to talk and I had nothing to say about my impression because I didn't understand it then. Kevin was finished and I stood up and took a deep breath as I gazed over a sea of green robes, open faces.
“You’re all strong men,” I eventually said. Yukio’s voice came from somewhere behind me, translating for a while. The men laughed making me wonder what Yukio said. I looked at the group of men before me, salary men, dentists, lawyers, teachers who had been one animal, a riot, a river, an ecstasy of minds under the tension of a mikoshi, capable of anything, but soon their minds would separate and the night would fade with the steam from their morning cup of tea. I stood wishing for words where there were only these thoughts. “Omoshirokatta,” I said instead, it was fun and interesting.